Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Night Driving: Growing Pains

This post is part of a synchroblog event celebtrating the release of Addie Zierman's new book Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark. You owe it to yourself to go buy a copy of this book today. My review of Addie's newest tome will be published soon. 

Growing up in church was easy - mainly because we never really grew up. We got older, moved from class to class and small group to small group depending on our age, but growing up, maturing in our faith and learning to think for ourselves, was not something that was actively encouraged. There were lines to toe, standards and denominational doctrines to uphold, and elder/older members of the congregation that kept the system in place by keeping the collection plates spinning. 

We were taught what to believe, Whom to believe in, and that God was our Father, Jesus was our brother, and - sing it with me - the blessed Holy Spirit was our guide. We were taught that Jesus was the answer to everything. We were taught that prayer answered everything.

We were given answers but not allowed questions. We were told to do the mathematically and theologically difficult by reducing the Trinity to a binary system of "black" and "white" answers. We were told what to collectively believe, but never why as individuals we believed what we did. 

Questions were what kept us from the light. Questions led us to dark places. 



This in part explains why while many of my peers were taking refuge in their faith by attending a private religiously-affiliated college or finding sanctuary in the buffets of the BSU (or BCM if you prefer), I recall many nights in the residence hall I spent questioning my faith in the literal and spiritual dark. Like a toddler testing their limits of what they can do, I found myself half flinching while looking up every time I said or did something that ran counter to the answers I had been given. There were no lightning bolts that struck me down when I didn't do my quiet time. No soap appeared in my mouth when I dropped an f-bomb. No boils appeared on my skin and no signs of leprosy showed up when I touched a girl's boob. 

I had answers, but not ones that fit the questions I was asking. And what really was screwing with my mind was that I felt these questions weren't keeping me in the dark; counter to what I was told they would do, they were instead trying to illuminate the way for me. 

I remember in perfect detail the day I sat on the floor in the house of a friend, propped up by a doorway, and with a feeling of numbness in my chest asked the question of my faith that had been nudging at me for years: did I believe in anything? The simplicity of my Christian upbringing was butting up against the complexities of living a life in the world with other people. I was curious about a spirituality that existed beyond the words in hymnals and on projector screens. 

I questioned, and no stones were thrown. But then again, no pat answers were given, either. 

And so, I went dark. I went radio silent in my faith. 

Two years later, I fell asleep on the floor of a different house, crying with tears that wouldn't stop. Years of pent-up frustrations, pain, dashed hope and dreams, and struggles in the dark manifested in questions of why and how, as I pounded my fists on the linoleum until they were bruised. I knew I was crying out for someone, but I wasn't sure if anyone was listening. I yearned for any sign of the faith of my youth, the faith that had stalled in arrested development. The faith that had gone through a far-too-long delayed growth spurt, resulting in bruised and sore, strained muscles.

The faith that had grown into belief and hope. No longer blind faith, but one that stared into the sun. Unflinchingly. 

I awoke on that same linoleum, peeling my face from the cold floor where tears and snot had combined and dried to make my cheek stick to the tiles. I walked to the bathroom, feeling numb and empty. I had finally let everything drain from me. And in that moment of harsh reality from the morning light, seeing my reflection in the mirror, looking and feeling like I had taken a cue from Jacob and wrestled with an angel (preferring a bruised thigh to my hands), I heard - felt - a Voice. A Voice that didn't question back the why of what all I had done, how could I have done it, or what was I thinking. 

All I felt was a Voice telling me "You are made for more than this. This is not who you are supposed to be."

A Voice showing love with a statement I needed to hear in response to my questions. It may not have been the direct answer I wanted in response to my questions, but it was the answer I needed. 

In the interim decade-plus since that night, that Voice has remained consistent, even though I haven't. Questions still arise, doubts still stand and sting, and still like a toddler, I touch the stove  even though I've been told - and learned from first-hand experience - that it can burn. But that's what growing up, what maturing is ultimately all about: making mistakes, sometimes repeatedly, and learning from them.

And that all great Teachers enjoy it when you ask questions. 


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Doctor StrangeGlove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and "Love" the NFL

Pennsylvania is trying to kill me. Yes. The whole state. 

Not the weather, mind you. I'm the lunatic who giggles when he walks outside to be slapped in the face by temperatures in the teens. I'm the nutjob who wants a snowblower because it JUST LOOKS SO DARN COOL! I'm the moron who is busy practicing his fire-building skills in our wood-burning fireplace so that I can keep everyone warm.

No, the weather isn't going to do me in.

It's the mentality and culture surrounding professional sports. Football in particular. 

Ashley and I both grew up appreciating football the way God intended it: at the collegiate level and in the SEC. Granted, her zeal and passion for Auburn eclipses my own for Mississippi State (and probably single-handedly dwarfs up to a third of the passion of the entire alumni base), but we still know what Saturdays are made for: tailgating. So both Kai and Eli come with a natural genetic tilt towards appreciating sports, if not participating in them (again, a gift from their mothers' side). 

From the time both boys were able to speak, they chanted "Wa Eagoo HEY!" and "Hayel Tate!" We purchased the most adorable shirts for them. We gave them pompoms to shake and cowbells to ring. We even begrudgingly tolerated Kai's brief love affair with the University of South Carolina Gamecocks. We smiled as he and his classmates would craft games at the park, playing each other as the teams they love. But again: this was football at the collegiate level. 

I lived in Athens, GA, but never saw a Falcons game in Atlanta. I lived in Coral Gables, but never saw the Dolphins play in Miami. I lived in Columbia, SC, but never went to go see the Panthers play. The closest I ever came to watching the NFL as I was growing up was when I would switch the channel on the TV to a cartoon after my dad fell asleep watching a game. As an teenager and into my adult years, the greatest appreciation I have for the NFL was is watching the commercials during the Super Bowl. 

I knew that things would change once we migrated north of the Mason-Dixon line, but an entire paradigm shift in the mentality and fervor of Kai? Never saw it coming.

Every day - EVERY day - he "plays" football in the family room. He tosses the football in the air, catches it, runs plays, falls to the ground, skids across the carpet, and calls imaginary plays aloud. He provides his own replays. He acts as the referee. He collects miniature football helmets. He collects miniature football player figures. He wants to get a flag for the New England Patriots to go out in front of our house. And he has started memorizing players' names and statistics.

Gone is the boy who wanted to always play superheroes. Gone are the forts and castles in Narnia we would build. Gone is the boy who would run into the room every time he heard the theme from DOCTOR WHO playing on TV. 

Gone is my mini-me. 

Oh, there are still glimpses of my little geek that come out every so often: excitement over digging through back issues of comic books; excitement over the newest STAR WARS film (and the BB-8 he has slept with every night since Christmas); and requests to listen to Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil in the car. 

But my sidekick has turned into a place kicker. He's becoming himself. He's imprinting on his friends just like I did. He's finding his own identity and groove.

He's growing up. 

Dammit.

So, I'm trying to learn these teams along with him. I'm trying to at least have a baseline understanding of what the crap he's talking about most of the time. I'm trying to let some of the crazed mania for all these...non-collegiate...football teams he has rub off on me. 

Because I remember. I remember the blank stares, the half-hearted attempts at conversation, and the ways in which my dad listened to me babble on endlessly about Richie Rich, the DC Comics Multiverse, who was cooler between Luke and Han, why I liked Spock over Kirk, and whatever else gripped my mind at the time. Just like Kai is doing with me, I spoke a language foreign to my dad. 

But I'm going to attempt and become bilingual. I''m going to celebrate the things he celebrates. This is either going to be a phase he will grow out of and go back to wanting to build a TARDIS with me, or this is going to shape the core of who he will be for decades to come. 

Either way, I'll be there with him. As much as he will let me.

And if he continues to want to watch football on TV, I'll just keep flipping back over to the FIREFLY marathon during the commercials. 

Saturday, January 09, 2016

OneWord365 for 2016

As a parent, it is deceptively easy to relegate the chaotic free-form howls, screeches, and repeated utterances of "DAAAAAADDDDD!!!!" to nothing more than white noise. I hear them, the neighbors hear them, the fire department two blocks away probably hears them as well - but I can (and do) tune them out at times. It's when things get silent that terror grips me, and I walk/jog to wherever my wild things are to see what is happening.

Because I can hear something a thousand times (again: "DAAAAAADDDDD!!!!") and it loses some of its effect. But when I see - when I truly see - what I am supposed to look at (the small human producing the clarion call of "DAAAAAADDDDD!!!!" for instance), I begin to pay attention. 

The whispers of a still, small Voice beckoning my heart sometimes gets drowned out by the hectic pace of life. Sometimes it gets drowned out because I choose to defer listening to it. But when I see - when I truly see - how I act and what I say when my voice takes precedence, I stop. And I begin to pay attention. 

Because I know me. Because I know how I tend to take some things for granted. And those times when I stop and truly, deeply observe the world around me, the focus of my soul shifts along with the focus of my eyes:

The mountains, stretching towards the horizon, beckoning adventure.

The skies, ablaze with life, as the sun takes pause to end the day.

The faces of the people I see as I am out and about, remembering they are souls of value. 

The eyes of my two year old, as he furrows his brow and arches one eyebrow when learning something new.

The eyes of my six year old, alive with passion and joy over everything except vegetables. 

The eyes of my wife, the eyes that have not aged a day since I first looked into them and saw love reflected back to me.

I can read and gain knowledge. I can hear a song and have it move me. I can take an active role in something and grow from it. 

But when I look - when I truly, truly look - and when I do more than simply observe?

I connect. 

My #OneWord365 for 2016?


Look. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Untitled

So. Since I am now - once again - getting back into the groove of this writing thing, I feel the need to write about where I've been and what I've been up to. Basically, I need to bring myself up to speed in writing about this past year. Yeah, yeah - I lived it, but I've worked in higher education long enough to know the Golden Rule: if it's not documented, it never happened. 

A Pulpit By Any Other Name

Back in October 2014, right about the time my blog went radio silent, the local church where I'd been attending (admittedly off and on) pretty much since we moved to South Carolina found themselves without a full-time pastor. Since I had in the past stepped in to insure there was no vacancy in the pulpit on given weeks, I was asked if I would step in again, but this time stay in. On a week to week basis. 

These people were (and still are) my friends. There was no way I was going to say no. 

For all the times I spoke at New Hope, I fought against the idea of labeling myself "Pastor." When asked what title I wanted on the bulletin (not so much so people could have a title to call me; I was always referred to by my name or "The Bald Guy"), I opted for the moniker "Interim Teaching Pastor." It summed up what could have been my time in the pulpit along with what I saw myself as: a teacher. I saw myself as a DEAD POETS SOCIETY era Robin Williams crossed with VELVET ELVIS era Rob Bell, with a pinch of CHAGALL GUEVERA era Steve Taylor for good measure. 

Basically, a non-conformist, educated, teller of stories that could foster spiritual growth, with an openness to all, and love free of judgment through the lessons I taught, with a passion for people over theology.

So, in other words, kinda like Jesus.

Titles within churches are tricky. I can be and am comfortable with the label of "Youth Pastor" or "College Pastor," because (1) they sound comparatively more like they belong to someone who might be cool to be around, and (2) they make me sound younger than I am. Outside of church, these titles don't create as much of a negative social flinch in some people; again, those with these jobs traditionally can be and tend to be less stuffy and proper in many regards. 

Part of my reluctance in taking on the name of "Pastor" stemmed from my insecurity of my theological lineage. I don't have the MDiv to go along with the name. My ordination comes from the same basis as the Apostles (that is to say, none). My "proper" church pedigree doesn't exist. And while I love being a spiritual mutt, with respect to those who have done due diligence in obtaining the proper credentials, I felt awkward about taking a title I didn't feel I had earned. 

But as I came to see and feel in the eyes and hearts of my people, the people at New Hope, I was a pastor. I am a pastor. A messenger of faith, hope, and love. And whatever hang up I had on the name, I needed to get the hell over it. I was there for them, not for a name I gave myself because of my insecurities. 

And being their pastor made me feel special. Because I challenged myself, week in and out, to be as transparent as possible, to teach what they needed and not what I wanted to talk about, and to be the first among equals. And I can only hope I was as good for them as they were for me. 

A Blog Backlog

Unlike other pastors who have "study hours" in their offices in the church, my study hours were conducted during nap times while Eli slept. My bi-vocational life as a stay-at-home dad/pastor was so rock star it defies description. As such, something had to give. I mean, there are only so many hours in the day to cook breakfast, fix coffee, do laundry, clean, vacuum, play, go grocery shopping, break up sibling fights, run to Target, go to parks, fix lunch, explain why we are not having grilled cheese again, play, clean, do dishes, put a toddler down for a nap, play board games quietly, have a snack, prep dinner, break up another fight, and do research on a sermon. 

So, I drew the curtains on the windshield for a little while. 

But..I kept writing. Sermons. Ideas. Outlines. So I have a load of stuff to edit, adapt, and load up. I could upload the notes from my sermons after I rewrite them so they're not so crazy scattered to the untrained eye. It's what all the cool pastors do. ...actually, they probably have someone they pay to do that, but neither Kai nor Eli are eligible for employment yet, so...

So folks from New Hope? You'll be able to read my sermons and actually see what I was talking about. Trolls? You'll be able to read my sermons and actually flame me over what you see as theological impurities. Everybody else? You'll be able to read my sermons and actually see if I am capable of a deep thought or three. 

My email address is linked above at the CONTACT ME section. 

But don't worry - I'll also write about beer and my kids as well. Just in due time. First, we have to set up this new house...

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Emphasis of Stress

I'll admit it: the allure of the simplicity of living in a trendy "tiny home" is massively appealing. Every time I would watch yet another one of those episodes on television where they show the design and implementation of transforming a residence into "the perfect" home for a couple, I would think, "Yeah, we could totally do that."

Except.

See, almost without exception, the couples who move into these tiny homes are retired or have kids who have already gone off to college. I can tell you from first-hand experience of just two weeks (and counting) of living in a one-room hotel room with a kitchenette, two double beds, and less square footage than a two-car garage with a two year old and a six year old?

Tiny houses must suck if you have kids.

No Migration Without Representation

Ashley recently accepted a position at Lehigh University in PA, so two weeks ago we packed up all our crap in SC and loaded it onto a moving van bound for our new home. Only...we didn't have a home quite yet.

You see, we have lived in University Housing for our entire married life. Our kids don't know life outside of a residence hall apartment or house adjacent to a university. This will be the first time I am going to be responsible for such joyful homeowner experiences like cutting the grass. 

Moving to a new state for a job for Ashley has in some ways become a thing for me: first it was Miami, then SC, and now PA. I don't have an issue at all with moving for her job; as a matter of fact, it's my pleasure to do so. I want her to be happy and fulfilled with her job. She's beyond amazing at what she does, and from what I can tell from Lehigh thus far, it's going to be the best (to date) professional and personal experience she has ever had in a job. ...except at UGA, where she met me. 

We made the conscious decision to literally drive out on faith, hoping that we would find a home in a good school district for Kai that met our needs as a family (in other words: TWO BATHROOMS). We naively decided that we could stay in an extended stay hotel for as long as it might take, so we could get "the perfect" anti-tiny home to live in.

And we may have found it. As of this writing, we still haven't closed on the house yet. The negotiations and counter offers have taken on NATO-level proportions. Hopefully the closing will happen in the next week or so and we can have physical keys to use instead of card keys like this place utilizes.

We Should Have Diamonds Any Day Now

But here's the reality: until we have someplace to be able to literally stretch our legs out, we are spending more intentional time together as a family than we have in the two years since Eli was born. This isn't a bad thing, per se. We have initiated a new family tradition of thirty minutes at the end of the day of laying on the beds (pushed together to make them more accommodating for sleep) and tickling each other and just laughing. We are testing the limits of my culinary expertise by eating meals prepared in a microwave, range top, and a toaster oven. We are limited in exposure to TV thanks to the dozen channels offered on the hotel's system.

The downside is that there is no time away. No room to breathe. No "me" time for any of us. (Case in point: I'm writing this at 4:00 AM)

This has made Eli a bit more fussy than usual. He loves his brother, but in SC, he could just take a toy to play with on the couch away from Kai if he needed to.

This has made Kai a bit more frustrated than usual. He can't read by himself, he doesn't have room to get some of his manic energy out, and I feel bad for him every day that he has to sit quietly (to the best of his ability) and color, play a game on my iPad (don't judge), or do some kind of activity in relative silence while his brother takes a nap in the afternoon about a dozen feet away.  

This has made me...a jerk.

My temper has gotten the best of me. I've been angry, short with the boys and with Ashley, tense to the point where I'm sure I grind my teeth at night, and I have lost my temper on more than one occasion. 

I'm having to constantly entertain, constantly come up with places to go and things to do, constantly serve as referee between these two, and not have one break in the midst of it all. Eli has been off his sleep rhythm at night for two weeks now, which frustrates both me and Ashley; once he finally falls asleep, we're both so exhausted we can't even see straight. We've been less than kind to each other so much so that I made the joke to someone for a housewarming gift, Ashley and I would give each other couples therapy and/or time on a firing range.

A lot of what has frustrated me and made me act like Hyde to my usual Jekyll comes with the package in being a stay at home parent. I'm quite used to being a children's entertainer/executive chef/housekeeping staff. That's not the problem in the least. 

Every outside force acting upon our usual ebb and flow of living with and loving each other has changed. And while it is temporary, it's the reality of the here and now. And in my naïveté, I thought we could change ZIP codes as easily as we could change our lives. 

I wasn't prepared for the emotional claustrophobia of being no less than six feet from my family at any given moment. I wasn't prepared for how Kai and Eli might react to the situation. I wasn't prepared to take their needs into account of how they might process through overly acting out with every incident that makes them unhappy (like when a dog from the Paw Patrol cartoon uses a tool they disagree with and they throw the remote across the room) that EVERYTHING has changed.  

Once we have a residence with a driveway, we can physically and psychologically stretch out. I don't believe my giving into the Dark Side has caused an irreparable rift between myself and either of the boys. There's a bittersweet beauty in that I can and have talked to Kai about my anger, and I have had to show that dad has feet of clay and needs to apologize and make amends just like we tell him he needs to. There's a lot of forced honesty and transparency this adventure has bestowed upon our little foursome.   

We're gonna make it. We're going to be better for it on the other side of this experience.

I'm just going to need a lot of wrinkle cream and hair dye for my beard. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thinking on Thanks

I am thankful...for the decades of memories I got to share with my mom. Some bad, some good, but all woven into the threads that bound us together. Family is a complicated beast, and Lord knows our relationship was a complex one. But at the end of the day, there were more hugs than shouts. 

I am thankful...for the countless miles traveled in the RAV4, for the late-night trips with the windows down keeping me awake, for the journeys with both my boys, for the Christmas trees strapped with salty language to the roof, for the safety and comfort it brought.

I am thankful...for the opportunities granted to me - unlicensed and unordained - by New Hope, to stand and speak my heart. I found a passion that I never knew existed, hidden under what I thought was my desire. The smiles, laughs, and open hearts allowing me to be me have left an indelible mark of joy.

I am thankful...for those who have taken my words and gotten something from them. For those who saw something in my scribbles and tangents and felt them better than I gave them credit for and deserving of a wider audience: Ashley. Lindsey. Adam (the man). Scott. Darrell. Alise. Your faith gave me courage to keep writing. And though the volume of my writing was lessened this year, the fire has not died.

I am thankful...to the craft beer community here in Columbia (and beyond), for amazing days and nights of laugh-filled memories, tastes of rare delights I never knew existed, and for letting me find friendships I didn't think possible. Shawn (always first). Julian. Travis. Nick. Wes. Joseph. Matt. Matthew. Ashley. Josh. Tyler. Ben. Andrew. I raise a full heart to you all.

I am thankful...for the decades/lifetime of memories contained within four-color theaters of imagination. Our journey is nearing its completion, and my closets will be emptier without you, but your contribution to my intellect, creativity, and personality will live on.

I am thankful...for Kai. For half a decade of teaching me to be a better person. For letting me understand what love feels like. For letting me be a part of you as you grow, learn, and take the world on.

I am thankful...for Eli. For endless dances, for laughter and smiles that make me heart so full it feels as if it will burst apart. For redemptive parenting. For holding my hand as you sleep and as you lead me on journeys where we will go together.

I am thankful...for Ashley. For without whom I could not breathe. For without whom, my life would have been a series of events devoid of meaning and depth. For the laughs, the fights (good and bad), the ways you tolerate, love, and help me to grow into myself.

I'm just thankful. For that next cup of coffee in the morning, because that means a new morning has come.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Palindromic, Tribonacci, Happy Number Birthday

I see you over there, calendar. Littered with hash marks, ticking off the days. In what feels like the blink of an eye, another year will be here.

The years that have preceded you have each come with their own little earthquakes. Really. From 18 until now, I can look back and see one - if not more - major seismic shifts that hit with annual regularity. Some good, some heartbreaking, some pushes in the right direction, some free falls off a cliff.

Each year a mile marker on this journey of life. The ones at the start are still somewhat pristine, their innocence never having weathered a major storm and becoming tarnished. The ones that lie directly behind me, however, have chips, scratches, and show the sign of having stood in the midst of chaos for a year.

They all have strong roots. That's why they - and I - have never fallen. They are planted firmly in the ground.

My journey has taken me to this point where there are an equal number of miles to go that lie before me as what lie behind me, if not with the possibility of less before me than behind. And that's okay. It's not scary. It's a challenge to take those remaining miles and make of them something amazing. Something spectacular, to be found in the mundane every day rituals of life.

Every smile needs to count. Every moment of choosing peace over frustration or anger needs to count. Every moment when I have the chance to play on the floor with my family needs to count. Every quiet moment on the couch at night needs to count. Every meal I fix with a flourish, ignoring recipes and directions, needs to count. Every leaf I see falling, every sunrise and sunset I view, every breeze of wind that stirs the ground before me needs to count.

Every beer I enjoy. Every word I write. Every sentence I utter. These should count only if with friends and family who count. They should not be for my glory, but for my community.

Forty-four isn't a scary age. Trying to mentally see that many candles on a cake is, but that's why I like cupcakes.

Each one counts. Each one is unique, each one is to be tasted separately.

Like every day in life.

So raise a pint with me. Raise a mug of coffee with me. Raise your eyes. Raise your heart.

And count.

Everything.